In part one of our article, we looked into the initial concepts people talk about when technology is being blamed for halting or interfering with processes.
In part two, we move on to what must be done for which the short answer is diversity, in all aspects of your farming industry such as:
- Cash crops
- Cover crops
- Production animals
- Domesticated – free range and pasture raised
Nowhere in nature is there a monocrop, a single species animal, no insects and no diversity of bird life.
The goal we’re all after is to run a profitable business and make money. There isn’t much point in improving your farm and not reaping the rewards from it, which means only your buyers benefit from your work.
Let this be a warning though, with the effects of our changing weather patterns, where the storms are becoming more violent, the droughts longer and hotter, you cannot think you don’t have to change because it was always done this way. Be warned you won’t be profitable long enough so that your children can inherit your farm.
How often do we hear the argument – don’t reinvent the wheel. If the wheel was not reinvented from the first time it was made, we would not have formula one racing cars. The idea here is that we need to build up and develop these simple concepts to fit the times we’re currently living in.
I will once again use the 5 Principles of Soil Health – as mentioned in the book Dirt to Soil by Gabe Brown.
- No disturbance – mechanically or chemically
The effects of ploughing and soil disturbance is not conducive to building up your soil biology. The surface bacteria need oxygen to grow while the bacteria deeper in the soil need carbon dioxide to grow. When tilling the soil, the surface bacteria’s environment is all of a sudden oxygen deprived and this kills the bacteria, the same thing happens to the bacteria that use CO2 to multiply – there is too much oxygen all of a sudden and they die.
The other disadvantage is that the organic matter is broken down to quickly and the last stage of any organic breakdown process is carbon dioxide and water.
When we use pesticides and herbicides – we normally target a pest or a weed – the problem with these chemicals is that they are not selective in what they kill, and they have certain pathways in which they inhibit weed or pest growth. These pathways are shared between various living organisms and destroy normal flora as well – this can either be the soil biology or insects that are predators for various pests.
We must start building a robust biological environment, so that we can get the predator prey relationship in equilibrium. We will always live with diseases and if we always try to eliminate everything our plants and animals are more vulnerable to diseases.
One advantage of building robust biology that if we get our soil life to a state where the roots aggregates have been formed. These bacteria have the ability of gene manipulation in the plant, this is normally directly related to the immune system of the plant and the host animal, if our gut bacteria are functioning properly, there is a direct improvement on the lung immunology.
There was a study in the UK that showed that infants that were treated with antibiotics in the first year of life, had a 95% higher chance of getting asthma as teenagers, this was only due to the bacterial disturbance of the normal flora in the gut.
If we are serious in lowering our input costs, we will have to start looking at our microbiology in the soil, we must make our environment more resilient against drought pests and weeds.
- Soil Cover
We must keep our soil covered with organic matter all the time. The African sun is just too hot on our topsoil not to have cover on the soil. The difference in soil temperature can be as much as 20˚C and that is detrimental to the soil health. The bacteria cannot withstand these high temperatures. It also helps protect the soil against evaporation and wind erosion. We must be jealous about our topsoil it must not blow away, the cost of maintaining your topsoil is too high to give it to your neighbor. The other effect of cover is that it breaks the speed of the rain falling, this also prevents runoff.
We have mentioned it before already, we need to have a diversity in all aspects of the environment. We cannot exclude a species or group and think it is beneficial. We really must follow the moto – life creates life. If we wake up every morning and think about what we are going to kill today, we are doing more harm than good. We must create a robust environment, where the predator prey relationship is stable. We can only do this with diversity. Plant pollinator strips, with so many flowers and various grasses and legumes so that the soil health in that strip does improve. If you can graze the strip the bigger your impact on the soil health will be.
- Living root
“We owe our existence to 6 inches of topsoil and the fact that it rains.”
You must take your environment into account if you plant cover crops, in the last couple of years the east of the country did not get any winter rain, to then establish a cover crop to build up your soil is very difficult. The next cash crop will struggle if the summer rains are late and with the rising temperatures. What we must realise is that we are trying to build up soil and planting cover crops into degraded soil, there is no biology that can help the cover crop with minerals and water. We have taken the ability of the biology to make the soil environment more robust.
This will take time and we will have to look at rotations of our cash and cover crops so that we can build our soils biologically robustness before we try and challenge the environment and hope for the best.
You must also consider once again that we need a diversity of cover crops, and the more species you plant the bigger the impact is on the soil health. The Jena project in Germany has clearly shown that a plant species diversity of 8 – 16 different plants has a greater effect on soil health than a smaller number of species.
- Animal impact
This is probably one of the hardest mind shifts for a cash crop farmer, to put animals on his fields, because animals compact the soil too much. Depending on the grazing management system we can loosen the soil with hoof action. UHDG will have a much better hoof action, urine and dung distribution than if the cattle can graze selectively. Depending on the regrowth, it is possible to graze the cover crop again.
With animals on a cash crop field we must see how we can make the money that is lost to the crop with animals. The animal must pay for the loss of income of the cash crop.
Stacking – this is a concept where more than one animal species is used to graze the cover crop, cows can be used to graze first, a couple of weeks later, sheep, and then chickens. This has a huge effect on parasite control and you get more than one income stream from the same plot of land.
The same with pollinator strips. The flowers attract pollinators, making your own honey from the stirps is beneficial, especially for people with allergies, to the various grasses.
We must look how can we integrate all the above principles so that we can make this function on our farm.
How do we start?
The first step in knowing there is a problem is to recognise the problem. If you don’t get affected by drought, all your chemical inputs are effective, the chemicals don’t harm the environment nor animal and human health, and you are producing a nutrient dense food. Then you don’t have to change.
We have to fully understand why we must change, this is far more important than how we must change. If you fully understand the why, the how becomes easier to comprehend.
You as the farm owner must make it your own. It is nobodies project; it is not an idea that the consumer can implement on your farm. You must fully buy into the process where you understand the why and how – what is in it for me.
This is your farm you have to make it happen, you are the jockey. Nobody is going to do it for you on your farm, you must apply it, there are people doing it already and we must see how can we build a community to help each other, but at the end it is you that has to drive the process, on your farm.
Make it happen, at this stage you are convinced that what must be done is correct and to the benefit of everyone around you and the environment at large. Now you just must take action and make it happen.
The biggest challenge however still is how do we start.
One of the most important aspects of starting is the understanding of your environment. We must take your rainfall into consideration. The lower the rainfall the longer the time will be to build up soil carbon.
We often have the idea that if we want to change something, we must change everything. Changing over to regenerative agriculture can be a process, remember you want to make the biggest impact on your soil, but you must also make money.
The growth and vigour of your cover crop is directly related to the rainfall that you will receive. The longer you have your cover crop and animal impact on the land the bigger the response will be in relationship to your soil carbon, and the disease profile of the land.
You must start with a rotation of cash and cover crops and animal impact to have a rotational system to build your soil. We need time, and remember that we are starting from a very low base and we want to build up the soil carbon to levels that we don’t know where the end point is.
Please refer to our podcast episode on cover crops for more information on the topic.
To have an effect on the soil, the minimum period to plant cover crops rather than cash crops should be 24 months, this is taken from farmers that sell potato seeds, they cannot grow seed potatoes in the same field for 24 months. After 24 months the disease cycle has been broken.
If we plant a summer cover crop, with a variety of species grazing the cover crop, followed by a winter cover crop that can be planted earlier, into the summer cover crop. You should not use chemicals to kill of the summer cover crop, either plant green, slash or crimp the summer cover crop. The next summer cover crop can be planted after the winter cover crop after the first rains have been received, and you follow the same cycle as the previous year.
The cover crop must be diverse, with legumes, flowers, grasses, and brassicas for example.
In terms of rotation, this table below provides a view on what you should be aiming for:
|20% of Cash Crop Fields – A||20% of Cash Crop Fields – B||20% of Cash Crop Fields – C||20% of Cash Crop Fields – D||20% of Cash Crop Fields – E|
|Season 1||SCC||SCC||Cash Crop||Cash Crop||Cash Crop|
|Season 2||Cash Crop||SCC||SCC||Cash Crop||Cash Crop|
|Season 3||Cash Crop||Cash Crop||SCC||SCC||Cash Crop|
|Season 4||Cash Crop||Cash Crop||Cash Crop||SCC||SCC|
|Season 5||SCC||Cash Crop||Cash Crop||Cash Crop||SCC|
SCC – Summer Cover Crop
WCC – Winter Cover Crop
HRC – Harvest Rest Cover
The cash crop can be any crop of choice, planted with pollinator strips.
This is only an example, it can obviously done slower where only 20 % of the fields are used as summer cover crops. The above example is 40% of the farm is being used to build up the soil. The more often the diversity of cover crops are on the fields the quicker the soil will be rehabilitated.
I would plant the cover crops without any inorganic fertiliser so that the soil biology can recover optimally. It must be noted that some bacteria can multiply every 20 minutes in the optimal environment, so the build up of bacterial mass is phenomenal.
We must have animal impact on both the Summer and Winter cover crop. If we can have a diversity of animals on the fields the better the recovery of the soil will be. Pigs can also be used for animal impact but beware they are destructive.
If you can have stacking on your field, that you can vary beef, sheep and chicken, your impact on the soil is even bigger.
Before planting the first summer cover crop on a field correct the pH of your soil – know what was your ground zero, so that you can measure progress.
What we want to achieve with a diverse cover crop is firstly to stimulate a diversity of microbial life in the soil. Secondly – we must feed our pollinators and various insects so that the predator prey relationship in the insect world can be restored. So a variety of flowers is crucial in a cover crop mix. Bees and honey are another source of income – the yield improvement of a soya crop has been documented already, if the bee population is healthy.
We want to put down biomass as cover so that the soil is covered,
Thirdly trees – planting trees even if they are production trees, for example pecan nuts, or even legumes for nitrogen binding. Trees create a habitat for birds and game, it also helps with the micro-climate and a windbreak. We must be creative in building our farm so that we can diversify our income from various sources.
If the diversity of game birds becomes to large, these can be harvested and sold as game birds. To niche markets.
Nobody said this would be easy and nobody has all the answers. We as GreenBio hope to simply provide you with a playbook that you should make your own and shape to your goals and objectives.
This is most probably the most exciting time in farming, where the notion of becoming custodians of the land, really does have a meaning again.
Thank you for joining us on this journey to fully understand and provide solutions to what we need to do as an industry to truly make a meaningful change that will impact future generations in a positive light.
If you would like to download the PDF version of both articles, please click here.